Difference and misrepresentation: a reply to Nick Cohen

Difference and misrepresentation: a reply to Nick Cohen

Consider these two excerpts: “Writing for the religious website Ekklesia, Jill Segger explained why good people must not show solidarity with ex-servicemen and women.” and “The brutalising experiences of combat lead many to harm themselves and others when they return to civilian life. These people deserve our compassion and support.”

The first is from a piece by Nick Cohen which appeared in yesterday's (11 November) Observer (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/10/dont-blacken-name-o...). The second is from my column 'In praise of the white poppy' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19354)

No writer or broadcaster would last long if they were unable to deal with disagreement, criticism or having their argument demolished. Sometimes this is done with grace and wit, on other occasions the execution is boorish. Whatever the manner, it is accepted as part of the job. But misrepresentation is another matter altogether.

There is little more dreary than squabbling columnists and my initial instinct was to ignore Mr Cohen. However, 24 hours reflection on my colleagues' firm conviction that his remarks constitute “bearing false witness and should be challenged”, has changed my mind.

The creation and demolition of straw men (or women) is a discredited technique and it is a pity to see Mr Cohen resorting to it. The supposed demonisation of service personnel which he describes in his opening paragraphs forms no part of the Quaker Testimony to peace, nor will he find any evidence for it in anything I have written in 20 years of journalism.

Those of us who write to deadlines know the pressure that may involve. Sometimes we make errors, reach for cliches or let anger and partisanship get the better of reason. When we do so, we fail in truth. How did my phrase: “cases of mistreatment of Iraqi and Afghan people” become “British troops had tortured and murdered Iraqis and Afghans, she said”? To state that “even Segger” (my italics) “has to admit most soldiers do not torture and murder” is to construct a meaningless conclusion upon a falsehood.

If we are unable to accept that military personnel – like the rest of us – fall short of perfection, if we are determined that they must always and in all circumstances be 'heroes', if we are unable to acknowledge that combat may brutalise and break the human psyche, we actually deny their humanity. It is important to have a honest conversation about the huge failure of war and its consequences. Misrepresentation is the enemy of that conversation and every veteran I have ever spoken with has said the same.

Journalism has been described as 'doing the best you can in a very short time.' On this occasion, I fear Nick Cohen has not done his best. Although I do not always agree with him, I have admired many of his articles. and I am sorry to see a well regarded journalist, writing for a liberal newspaper, fail to make a fair representation of views with which he disagrees.

'Advices and Queries', our Quaker book of discipline reminds us to “Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

That applies to us both. I will continue to reflect.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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